Town of Groton moves toward tax abatement program for surviving spouses of fallen first responders

·6 min read

Aug. 12—GROTON — The Town Council is working towards creating a property tax abatement program for the surviving spouses of firefighters, emergency medical technicians and police officers who died in the line of duty, as a way of supporting families for their sacrifice.

"The Town Council regularly shows their support for our local first responders," said Town Manager John Burt. "One way to do this is to provide a tax benefit to the surviving spouse of a first responder, should the worst happen and they perish in the line of duty."

After the Representative Town Meeting vetoed an earlier version of the ordinance, the Council at its Committee of the Whole meeting this week recommended a revised ordinance to create the tax abatement program that will go to a vote by the Council on Sept. 6 and then return to the RTM.

The state legislature passed in 2000 an act that allows municipalities to adopt by ordinance such an abatement program. Fran Snyder, whose husband served as a City of Groton police officer and died in the line of duty in the 1990s, approached the town regarding a tax abatement program for surviving spouses, Burt said at a meeting earlier this year.

The city passed an ordinance in 2001 that allows for the abatement of the city portion of taxes on real estate property on the home of a surviving spouse of a fallen police officer or firefighter, said City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick.

The town's proposed draft ordinance would apply only to town taxes on the surviving spouse's primary residence in Groton. The program would allow an abatement of 50%, for a maximum of $2,000, of real estate residential property taxes.

The proposed town ordinance, which the council has been working on for months, allows for a tax abatement for the surviving spouse of firefighters, emergency medical technicians, Town of Groton police officers, Groton Long Point police officers, and City of Groton police officers who die while performing their duties. According to the ordinance, emergency medical technicians mean any state-certified EMTs performing duties for an ambulance provider located within Groton. Firefighters mean "any person who is a duly employed member, or volunteer, of a state or municipal fire department, performing fire duties for any valid fire department located within the geographical boundaries of the Town of Groton."

Burt and RTM Moderator Jill Rusk explained at a previous meeting that in a 24-5 vote, with one abstention, the RTM vetoed the earlier version of the ordinance in June over concerns, including that the abatement, originally set at 100% of real estate taxes, was too high and over questions about what benefits first responders receive and how many first responders live in the town, in the event there was a big tragedy, and what kind of tax impact this would have. There were also concerns about including federal employees at the base in the ordinance, and if one type of federal employee was included, should the ordinance also include active duty military.

The RTM also said the ordinance should include volunteers, not just paid staff. The Council revised the ordinance to include volunteers.

The council also revised the ordinance to allow for a 50% tax abatement and specified that if the surviving spouse remarries and then divorces, the person could not reapply for a tax abatement.

The Council at its Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday recommended removing from the ordinance civilian employees who work as firefighters or police officers at the naval submarine base, though Councilors were in disagreement. Some said the Council should compromise so the RTM will not again veto the ordinance, but others called for lobbying RTM members about the importance of including the personnel in the ordinance.

Councilor Rachael Franco on Monday proposed removing the submarine base police and firefighters from the ordinance and lowering the maximum cap of property tax relief from $3,000 to $2,000. She said she feels for anybody whose spouse lost their life while working for the town, but saw the revision as a potential solution to appease the RTM. Franco, who is the child of a marine who served in the military police at the submarine base, said she cares about the personnel who work at the base, but she wants to get the ordinance passed and the provision for federal employees was a hangup of the RTM.

Councilor Portia Bordelon, who originally proposed adding them to the ordinance, said personnel from the base fought a fire in the city two doors down from her house and she knows from friends in Old Mystic that they show up to fight fires there too. She said the men and women who work on the submarine base are a huge part of Groton's tapestry and it doesn't make sense to exclude them.

Councilor Aundré Bumgardner said to exclude sub base personnel from this ordinance would be excluding key members of the community: "It would not reflect the true sense of this ordinance to support all first responders here in Groton," he said.

Councilor Melinda Cassiere gave a speech at a meeting earlier this year about the sacrifices of families of first responders. She presented statistics that 20 officers have died in the line of duty in Connecticut in the past 28 years.

Cassiere said on Monday that there are too many questions about what federal benefits base firefighters and police receive and the council doesn't have the answers right now. She said she has a police and fire background and has risked her life, but she also immensely respects the RTM as the fiscal arm of Groton's government. She confirmed with the town manager that the ordinance could always be revisited at a later date if someone found the additional statistics.

Town Mayor Juan Melendez, Jr. said he wanted submarine base firefighters and police officers to be included, but he questioned why the Council would send it back to the RTM with the same provision, knowing that the RTM already rejected it. He felt that in order to get the benefit for the other first responders, the council would have to take out the provision for the base employees.

Councilor David McBride said that, as he stated regarding a recently passed ordinance providing additional tax breaks for elderly and disabled people, he has issues with the timing of passing such an ordinance outside of the budgetary cycle.

Councilors voted 5-4 on Monday in support of Franco's motion, with Councilors Cassiere, Franco, Juliette Parker, Bruce Jones and Melendez, in favor, and Councilors Bordelon, Bumgardner, McBride, and Scott Westervelt opposed.

According to the ordinance, the spouse would have to reapply each year for the abatement. The surviving spouse's income level can not exceed 400% of the Federal Poverty Level for a single person.

If the Council approves the ordinance, it would go into effect 45 days later, if the RTM does not veto it.

k.drelich@theday.com